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Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine

Address. 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE [Map]
Telephone. (020) 7611-8582 (library), (020) 7611-8888 (main switchboard)
Fax. (020) 7611-8703
e-mail. [library@wellcome.ac.uk]

Governing body or responsible institution. The Wellcome Trust
Functions. Research library. The library is open to the public, as well as supporting the academic activities of the Wellcome Institute.
Subjects. The history of medicine and allied subjects, broadly defined and including social history. Collections of manuscripts, archives and iconographic materials (paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, etc.). Extensive oriental holdings, both printed and manuscript.

Access. Library facilities available without charge to bona fide applicants at the discretion of the Librarian. Prior enquiry advisable for special collections; essential for Contemporary Medical Archives Centre. - Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday 9.45 a.m. - 5.15 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday 9.45 a.m. - 7.15 p.m.; Saturday 9.45 a.m. - 1 p.m. Closed on public holidays and during the Christmas/New Year period. No lending except for students taking courses at the Institute.
Special facilities. Usual facilities for reading of microform and for reprography. Photographic service operated by Wellcome Centre Medical Photographic Library.
Printed information. Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. A brief description. (Latest ed. 1993). Also various leaflets, booklets etc.
Travel directions. Nearest underground stations: Euston, Euston Square, Warren Street. British Rail: Euston, St. Pancras, King's Cross. Numerous bus routes.


1.1 The library derives from the collecting activities of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936), American-born founder of the international pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co., later the Wellcome Foundation Ltd (Wellcome plc) and now absorbed into Glaxo Wellcome plc. The Library is administered by the Wellcome Trust, a charitable body established under Wellcome's will primarily for the funding of medical research. Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine 1.1

1.2 The death of his partner Silas Mainville Burroughs in 1895 left Wellcome as sole owner of the company with the financial resources to indulge his personal interests: the promotion of scientific research, philanthropic projects (particularly in the Sudan and towards the American Indians), archaeology in the Sudan and later in Palestine, and collecting for his library and museum. For the next forty years collecting absorbed an increasing proportion of his energy and expenditure. He cultivated a facade of secrecy around his purchasing, using a variety of pseudonyms. Although much of the work was delegated to his staff and agents, he was personally active as a collector, especially in the early years, and always exercised a close, and strongly possessive, control over all aspects of his collections. Medicine and allied subjects formed the core, but his interests also included archaeology and anthropology and, over the years, the contents of both museum and library became increasingly diffuse.

1.3 In 1913 the collection was formally constituted as the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, with Wellcome himself as Director. Administratively the Museum was placed within the research division of the Wellcome organisation and was not (as was widely believed) intended to serve the company's publicity. The headquarters of the Museum was at 54a Wigmore Street and a selection of material was displayed there from 1913 to 1932, primarily to the medical profession. Printed books and manuscripts were included in the display and a professional librarian was appointed but the library was kept closed to readers pending organisation and cataloguing. The momentum of collecting increased during the 1920s. The premises at Wigmore Street were already full and material was stored in various parts of London, particularly in a former wireless factory at Willesden Junction which, in 1928, became the home of the library.

1.4 Holdings of early printed books derive mainly from acquisitions made in the lifetime of Sir Henry Wellcome, and also reflect the interests of earlier collectors. At the sale of the library of William Morris (1834-1896) in 1898 Wellcome purchased 482 lots, including 67 incunabula, mostly religious and legal acquired not for their subject-matter but as examples of early printing and design. Among these are fine copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), and Rudimentum Novitiorum (1475). In 1911 Wellcome purchased en bloc the main part of the library of the physician and medical historian Dr Joseph Frank Payne (1840-1910), a comprehensive collection of printed books and manuscripts, including 49 incunabula and a large section relating to the plague. The German-speaking countries were a constant source of acquisitions. At the sale of the publisher Kurt Wolff (1887-1963) at Frankfurt a. M. in 1926 Wellcome purchased 117 lots, almost all incunabula (see below 2.6 ). The library of the historian of science Dr Ernst Darmstaedter (1877-1938), acquired in 1930, is particularly strong in alchemy and early chemistry. 36 lots were purchased at the sale of the Dietrichstein collection from Schloß Nikolsburg [Mikulov] (Luzern, Gilhofer & Ranschburg, 22 November 1933), which included 11 incunabula, some formerly owned by Hieronymus Münzer (1427-1508), town physician of Nuremberg, and his friend Hartmann Schedel (1440-1514).

1.5 In 1931/32 the present Wellcome Building, an imposing neo-classical structure, was erected at 183 Euston Road, to be the headquarters of Wellcome's research interests. The Museum was assigned three floors and was closed for a thorough reorganisation. The library remained at Willesden to await the erection of a new building near the Museum. When Wellcome died in 1936 neither Museum nor library was accessible to visitors.

1.6 After Wellcome's death the Wellcome Trustees decided that the historical collections should be more strictly focused on the history of medicine and science, and a series of sales of extraneous books and artefacts was initiated. Progress towards the reopening of the Museum was halted by the outbreak of World War II (which incidentally brought the eminent Viennese medical historian Max Neuburger, 1868-1955, to the staff as a refugee). The prospect of a separate building for the library was abandoned and it was assigned the handsome galleried room designed as the Museum's Hall of Statuary. Readers were first admitted in April 1946, though the formal opening ceremony was delayed until December 1949.

1.7 After the War the Wellcome Building became the headquarters of the Wellcome pharmaceutical business and space and funding for the Museum and library were severely restricted. (From 1947 to 1954 the Museum was relocated to 28 Portman Square.) Nevertheless Dr E. Ashworth Underwood (1899-1980), Director of the Museum from 1946 to 1964, mounted a series of successful exhibitions and consolidated the Museum's academic reputation. Likewise W. J. Bishop (1903-1961), librarian from 1946 to 1953, and his successor Dr F. N. L. Poynter (1908-1979) established an active role for the library. In 1961 financial responsibility was transferred from the company to the Wellcome Trust and in 1964 Dr Poynter succeeded Dr Underwood as Director. The title Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine was adopted in 1968.

1.8 In the 1970s, after Dr Poynter's retirement, it was decided that the medico-historical artefacts of the Museum should be transferred on indefinite loan to the Science Museum, South Kensington, and the Institute took on its present function as a centre for academic teaching and research in association with University College London. The pharmaceutical company vacated the Wellcome Building in 1990 and, after a thorough refurbishment, the building became the headquarters of the Wellcome Trust in 1992, with improved accommodation for the library and Academic unit.

1.9 The most important acquisition of early printed books since 1936 is the purchase of about 10,000 printed books and 160 MSS from the library of the Medical Society of London, founded in 1773. This collection was acquired in 1984. Early German imprints include: Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum (Cologne 1481); Hortus sanitatis (Strasbourg 1496); Abulcasis, Liber theoricae necnon practicae (Augsburg 1519); Ulrich von Hutten, De guaiaci medicina et morbo gallico (Mainz 1524).


2.1 Western printed books and serials are divided between three departments: Early Printed Books (pre-1851); Modern Medicine (primary literature post-1850); Historical Collection (secondary literature). There is also the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books. Manuscripts and archives are held by the Department of Western Manuscripts and the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre. The Iconographic Collections comprise pictorial materials of all kinds.

Chronological outline

and analysis by language

2.2 The holdings include over 600 incunabula, c. 5,000 16th-century, c. 10,000 17th-century, c. 20,000 18th-century, c. 21,000 1801-1850, and c. 170,000 post-1850 monographs; it also contains over 7,000 serials. Among the early printed books there are c. 20,000 each Latin and English, c. 11,000 French, c. 4,000 each German and Italian, and c. 1,500 each Spanish and Dutch. Although the amount of German-language material is comparatively small (perhaps a reflection of a bias towards Southern Europe in Sir Henry Wellcome's collecting), c. 20 per cent of the material (i.e. 12,000 items) were printed within the German-speaking area.

Subject outline

2.3 The library contains a comprehensive coverage of medical literature from the beginning of printing in Europe. It extends into related scientific fields, particularly botany, zoology, chemistry, pharmacy, alchemy, dentistry and veterinary medicine. Other subjects in which the library's holdings are strong include travel, ethnography, cookery, astrology and the occult. The library does not attempt to cover current medical literature. Its main priority in acquisitions is given to current publications in the history of medicine and science and to supporting material in general history, biography and bibliography.

2.4 The earliest work in the collection is the De sermonum proprietate of Rabanus Maurus (Strasbourg 1467), often described as the first medical printed book. There are many editions of herbals including the Latin Herbarius (Passau 1485, 1486), the German Herbarius (Gart der Gesundheit) (Mainz 1485; Augsburg 1485, 1496; Strasbourg 1507, 1515, 1521, 1528) and the Hortus sanitatis (Mainz 1491; Strasbourg 1496, 1499, 1536), as well as the later works of Otto Brunfels (11 relevant items; e.g. Herbarum vivae eicones, Strasbourg 1532), Leonhard Fuchs (13 items; e.g. Neu Kreuterbuch, Basel 1543) or Hieronymus Bock (6 items; e.g. De stirpium ...quae in Germania nostra nascuntur, Strasbourg 1552). The Library's copy of Theophrastus, De historia plantarum (Venice 1497, vol. 5 of the Aldine Aristotle), is in a binding dated 1557 with gilt centrepieces of the portrait and arms of Otto Heinrich elector Palatine (1502-1559).

2.5 Less obviously medical subjects include calendars and almanacs (several editions of Regiomontanus), astronomy (e.g. Georg Purbach), astrology, early geography (e.g. Ptolemaeus), and editions of the Fasciculus temporum of Werner Rolevinck (Speyer 1477; Strasbourg 1487, [c. 1490, 2 editions]). Among the non-medical incunabula there also are fine copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) and the Rudimentum Novitiorum (Lübeck 1475) bought from the library of William Morris (see above 1.4). Other examples to be mentioned are Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae (Strasbourg 1491) or Bernhard von Breydenbach, Peregrinatio in terram sanctam (Mainz 1486).

2.6 There are at least 15 books from the library of Dr Georg Franz Burkhard Kloss (1787-1854), e.g. Paracelsus's Auff Europen ... Practica (Strasbourg 1529) or Practica (Nuremberg 1529). The Kurt Wolff collection (see above 1.4) comprises 117 items, almost all incunabula, but only about a third are German imprints, many from German monastic libraries. Examples to be noted are Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum (Strasbourg 1485), Herbarius latinus (Passau 1485 and 1486, see above 2.4 ), Hortus sanitatis (Mainz 1485, see above 2.4), Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae (Augsburg 1472), Macer Floridus, De viribus herbarum (Geneva [before 1500]) and Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum naturale (Strasbourg [c. 1478]). The 3 Strasbourg Rolevinck editions (see above 2.5) are also from this collection.

2.7 The library owns nearly 100 editions of works by Paracelsus from the 16th and 17th centuries, more than 70 of which were printed in German-speaking countries, e.g. in Augsburg, Basel, Dillingen, Frankfurt, Mulhouse, Munich, Salzburg and Strasbourg. Other German medical and scientific authors represented include Georg Bartisch (Ophthalmodouleia. Das ist Augendienst (Dresden 1583), Hieronymus Braunschweig (11 items, e.g. Medicinarius, das Buch der Gesuntheit, Strasbourg 1505, and Liber de arte distillandi, Strasbourg 1508-1509 and 1512), Galen (9 items; e.g. Opera, Basel 1538), Hans von Gersdorf (2 items, e.g. Feldtbuch der Wundartzney, Strasbourg: H. Schott 1530), Conrad Gesner (c. 20 items; e.g. Historia animalium, books 1-4, Frankfurt 1602-1604), Eucharius Roesslin the Elder (4 items; e.g. Der schwanngeren Frawen und Hebammen Rosengarten, Augsburg 1529, and Hebammenbüchlin, Frankfurt 1565) and the Younger (2 items; e.g. Kreutterbuch, Frankfurt 1535) and Walther Hermann Ryff (c. 20 items; e.g. Confect Büchlin und Hauss Apoteck, Frankfurt 1544). Further to be mentioned are a number of 16th and 17th-century pest-books published e.g. in Berlin (1585), Jena (1607), Leipzig (1566), Munich (1606) or Regensburg.

2.8 Among 16th-century non-medical books are numerous works on cookery, agriculture, metallurgy, history and travel, as well as emblem-books or works on the occult. Typical examples are Koch unnd Kellermeisterey (Frankfurt [c. 1550], Jacob Koebel, Von Ursprung der Teilung ...der Ecker, Wyngarten, Krautgarten ... (Oppenheim 1522), Kunstbuechlin ...von Ertzarbeit ... (Frankfurt [c. 1540]), Sebastian Franck, Germaniae chronicon ([Frankfurt] 1539), Johann Theodor de Bry [and others], Americae pars quinta-octava (Frankfurt 1595-1625), Nicolas Reusner, Emblemata ...partim ethica et physica (Frankfurt 1581), or Jean Bodin, De magorum daemonomania libri IV (Basel 1581).

2.9 Later 17th-century, 18th and 19th-century German authors include e.g. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Johann Peter Frank, Johann Rudolph Glauber, Albrecht von Haller, Georg Ernst Stahl, Gerard van Swieten and Rudolf Virchow. The library's collection of ``anatomical fugitive sheets' (Fliegende Blätter) with movable flaps includes several German examples: a male and female pair (Strasbourg 1544), a female figure (Nuremberg 1564) and a set of three sheets, male, female and skeleton (Wittenberg 1573).

Special Collections

2.10 The Western Manuscripts include over 7,000 MSS and thousands of letters and documents ranging from Greek papyrus fragments to the 20th century. There is much German material (over 400 numbered MSS) in all subjects, including surgery, herbals, alchemy, popular medicine, Stammbücher, etc. A notable individual item is the early 15th-century ``Wellcome Apocalypse' (WMS 49), including illustrated German medical and anatomical texts. There are 338 letters of Alexander von Humboldt (WMSS 7080-7094). The library has recently acquired the papers of Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902; WMS/PP/KEB).

2.11 The Contemporary Medical Archives Centre contains over 450 collections of archives and papers of 20th-century medical scientists, practitioners, institutions and associations. Although essentially limited to British material it includes the papers of several figures of Germanic origin, e.g. Sir Ernst Chain (1906-1979) and Melanie Klein (1882-1960).

2.12 The Iconographic Collections include paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and films from all periods, including portraits, genre pictures, depictions of disease, caricatures, allegories, topography, etc., with much German material, e.g. engravings by Johann Elias Ridinger (1698-1767); perspective views (Augsburg, 18th century); early 19th-century lithographs by Strixner, Piloty, Hanfstaengl etc.; photographs of people with nervous and orthopaedic disorders by L. Haase (Berlin 1860); early x-ray photographs by Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen (1895); a film of an amputation (Berlin 1900). Over 56,000 images from the collection and 9 sequences of moving film are now accessible on a videodisc.


3.1 Current Catalogue

WILDCat (Wellcome Institute Library Database and Catalogue)

[Comprises c. 75 per cent of printed books with possibility for searching by author, title, keyword, and to some extent by subject. It also contains the catalogue of the Iconographic Collections. It is accessible on the Internet via Telnet (address: telnet wihm.ucl.ac.uk).]

Author card catalogue

[Contains books up to 1850. No new entries have been added since 1987 but it still contains information not yet transferred to WILDCat.]

Chronological card catalogue

[same as author catalogue]

Subject card catalogue

[discontinued in 1938; useful for early printed books]

Subject card catalogue for modern secondary literature

[to 1977; contains periodicals and monographs; partly based on the quarterly bibliography Current Work in the History of Medicine, founded in 1954, and therefore includes material not held by the library; published in 18 vols. in 1980, see below 3.2 ]

Subject card catalogue

[1978 to 1991; still in use. All later material appears in WILDCat]

WILDCat does not yet cover Western Manuscripts or the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre.

Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL)

[The Institute is a member of CURL, and its library holdings are being added to the COPAC union catalogue: http://copac.ac.uk/copac.]

The incunables are recorded in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC).

3.2 Published Catalogues

Poynter, F. N. L.: A catalogue of incunabula in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library. London 1954

A catalogue of printed books in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library. London 1962- [in progress] Vol 1. Books printed before 1641 (ed. by F. N. L. Poynter). 1962

Books printed from 1641 to 1850. Vol. 2. A-E (ed. by H. R. Denham). 1966. Vol. 3. F-L (ed. by H. R. Denham). 1976. Vol. 4. M-R (ed. by H. J. M. Symons and H. R. Denham). 1995

Subject catalogue of the history of medicine and related sciences. 18 vols. München 1980

Burgess, Renate: Portraits of doctors and scientists in the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, a catalogue. London 1973 [includes engravings and drawings, not oil paintings, photographs or group portraits]

Moorat, S. A. J.: A catalogue of western manuscripts of medicine and science in the Wellcome Historical Medical Library. 3 vols. London 1962-73

I. MSS written before 1650 AD. 1962

II. MSS written after 1650 AD. A-M, N-Z. 1973

Palmer, Richard: Catalogue of western manuscripts. MSS 5120-6244 [in the press]

Dixon, Shirley; Hall, Lesley; Sheppard, Julia: A guide to the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre. 4th edition. London 1995

Many other catalogues, particularly of oriental manuscripts and printed books, are listed in the ``Brief description' (see above printed information) and in J. Symons (1993; see below 4.2).


4.1 Archival sources

Accessions registers from December 1897. Runs of sale-catalogues. Correspondence files. Museum and library reports and memoranda. Typescript catalogue of Darmstaedter collection (Western MSS 2038-2042).

4.2 Publications

Wellcome Foundation Ltd.: Sir Henry Wellcome, a biographical memoir. London 1953

Poynter, F. N. L.: The Wellcome Historical Medical Library. In: Book Collector 4, no. 4 (1955) pp. 285-290

Turner, Helen: Henry Wellcome, the man, his collection and his legacy. London 1980

Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine: Annual Report 1982/83 -. London 1984-

Hall, A. R.; Bembridge, B. A.: Physic and philanthropy. A history of the Wellcome Trust. London 1986

Skinner, Ghislaine M.: Sir Henry Wellcome's museum for the science of history. In: Medical History 40, no. 4 (1986) pp. 383-418

A vision of history. The Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. An exhibition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wellcome Trust. London 1986

Sheppard, Julia: The Contemporary Medical Archives Centre. London 1987

Symons, John: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. A short history. London 1993

Rhodes-James, Robert: Henry Wellcome. London 1994

Aspin, Richard: The western manuscripts collection. London 1995


Schupbach, William: The iconographic collections. London 1989

Symons, John: Books from the Library of the Medical Society of London. An exhibition. London 1985

See also: A directory of rare book and special collections ... 2nd ed. London 1997, pp. 417-421

June 1999

John Symons

Quelle: Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland. Digitalisiert von Günter Kükenshöner.
Hrsg. von Bernhard Fabian. Hildesheim: Olms Neue Medien 2003.